When I am called up to read the blessing before the scroll is read, I am always called Hadassah bat Avraham. Hadassah is Esther’s Hebrew name, which I picked for myself as a convert. I picked it because as a child the Book of Esther was my favorite story in the Hebrew Bible. Grandma Alderson read it to me frequently and my stepmother told me that once when I was sick as a child I asked for Esther to be read to me, and said that she was impressed by the questions I asked were precocious. Why Avraham? Well, while a biological Jew has the Hebrew name of their biological father named in connection when they read the blessing, the convert has Avraham, mentioned instead. This is each convert has the patriarch Avraham (Abraham) for their spiritual ancestor… It is not that we lose our biological parents–whom we are told we still are bound to honor in this world and the next–it is only that we are spiritual descendants of Avraham or Abraham, too.
Yet I feel a special kinship with Abraham. What he means to me is not just his being called by God or the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac when he dedicates his son Isaac to God. No, it is also mentioned in that beautiful poem in Deuteronomy (mistaken to be devoid of poetry by so many people):
A wandering Aramean was my father,
and he went down into Egypt,
and sojourned there, few in number;
and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.
I am a wanderer in spirit. Part of this is because as a child I was always moving: we moved twice in Topeka, once when I was four, another time before kindergarten, and then when Mom remarried we moved to Wichita, where I changed school twice before Middle school, thrice in Middle School, and once in High School, though this time it was because I dropped out of the I.B. Program–an Honor’s program. More, to see my father, Mom and Jim would take me on the turnpike twice a month during the school year and two weeks during the summer… and on these visits, I would routinely see Grandma Alderson as well as Dad–because my parents were not on the friendliest terms with him always. Then Dad moved from Topeka to Lawrence when he married his second wife, Renae. Of course, there was also the fact that Grandma Williams lived with my parents for a while before she died, and also lived at Friendly Acres, and then a nursing home before she died… So though I had many people in my life, there was always a sense that I was never in one place for very long, despite never moving outside of Kansas until graduate school. And this much physical wandering made me a spiritual wanderer, too, I believe. Oh, other things helped: my father and stepmother’s fundamentalism and my stepdad’s agnosticism (poor Mom was only Methodist). Yet there was a sense that like Abraham I was always a stranger in a strange land. I never had the same friends for very long, and I was often picked on. College increased this, though I enjoyed the different perspectives I got from this: I took my classes at a Protestant School (Friends University); a Catholic School (Kansas Newman), and the state school (Wichita State). This was before my one year of Grad School in California.
I decided to become Jewish at the Catholic School, but I remember before then I learned about rosary beads and the rituals of the Church… I went to Mass twice, despite not being Christian… and I used to sit in the room where they had statues of Mary from around the world, each made to resemble the people for whom it was made… I found it comforting… but I could not really be Christian. When I converted to Judaism, I found the Jews far different from any people I had ever met… And in that year in California I discovered an alcoholic’s capitol… But a very tolerant place compared to Kansas… Yet at some way I loved “home” more when I came back… Not at first, but eventually… And yet for all that I think it was reading a book, Hillbilly Elegy (I am so sorry the author sold out to Trumpism, but still love the book) that showed me that Kansas people could be as interesting and exciting as, say, the people of foreign countries… I had long since given up the idea of writing about New York…
Despite being Jewish I never could escape the reality that there was faith outside the Bible. I read the Bible (in the King James, JPS and Catholic versions) and New Testament (in the King James and Catholic versions) and Quran (in 3 different versions, the best of which was Tarif Khalid’s) 5 times each… but I also delved into the lore of each faith… I have read parts of the Talmud, including the whole Mishna, the Book of Legends, and many, many other books. These include a History of the Talmud, and I have also read Chaim Potok’s novels, Back to the Sources, and The Women’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions–I have a copy and need to read up on the same female rabbis of the Haftorah. I read Luther: Man Between God and the Devil and despite what it said hope someday to read Erik Ericson’s biography of Luther. I also long to read about the Catholic saints but always feel a little nervous looking at the copy I got (at one dollar a book) of Butler’s Book of the Saints. I also do hope to read The Imitation of Christ and Augustine’s Confessions. Despite this I have read The Little Flowers of St. Francis and one modern biography of him… I have read pieces of the Muslim Hadith; Prophets in the Quran: An Introduction to the Quran and Muslim Exegesis; Khalid’s Images of Mohammad and The Muslim Jesus… I plan to read Believing Women in Islam and Quran and Women.
I have read the Buddhist Dhammapada once (I ought to read it again); an abridgment of the Upanishads; I believe the Tao Te Ching; and three abridgements of the Mahabharata (and hope to read the whole thing one day); the Ramayana once; I have also read portions of the (Hindu) Puranas, and (Buddhist) Jataka…
I am convinced that religious knowledge is at the center of any true religious faith… the person who reads his Bible but never goes any further because though he is able he prefers not to understand, say, the Evolutionary Theory… that is a defect on his faith… So I hope you do not mind listening to me. I believe the religious person should read Origin of Species (I admit I have only read it once) and try deep philosophy (my favorite two are Spinoza and Whitehead… but even Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” is a great first read, and no mind is truly free until it has scaled Plato’s Republic). However, I admit I have no true gift for science… I only dabble in reading books like Bobcats: Masters of Survival and The Soul of the Octopus.
However, because I embrace Philosophical wisdom and Scientific knowledge, I know it would be folly not to accept the Truth in books like Who Wrote the Bible? Because of that I study both religious and secular commentaries on the books I have named to you… Jewish Lives biographies on Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon and Akiba (as well as more technical books); A.N. Wilson’s biographies Jesus: A Life and Paul: In the Mind of the Apostle (plus two books titled Introduction to the New Testament); Watt’s Mohammad, plus Watt’s biography of Mohammad; Strong’s biography of the Buddha; and–I hope– eventually I shall read The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic and The Portable Gandhi.
Yet if one Christian friend said that in his faith he always comes back to Jesus, I always come back to the heroes and heroines of my faith, and not just God. Some other time I will discuss Moses or Miriam, but here I will only say that Abraham, the hero of faith who gave all for his Truth, which was his God, is so much a part of me that I could not be anything but a Jew… though I know that my spiritual fellows in his faith include Christians and Muslims, and that each human being is an heir to the greater family of humanity–because in the Talmud it assures us that each human being is descended of Adam and Eve and Noah and his family. The Righteous of the Nations shall be saved. And yet we Jews are heirs to a great faith and a great Truth… one I love but am somehow never satisfied with… I also wander like Abraham in the wilderness, with that one word haunting me, home.